The Arts

Free Zarganar

The Whistler looks at the case of Burmese comic Zarganar which demonstrates the dangers faced by performers across the world

The King’s Theatre, Glasgow has a reputation daunting to comedians but while performers might get the bird there, they don’t have to do bird. In a nation ruled by a military junta, with a history of ruthless oppression of opposition, the comic Zarganar has been imprisoned four times in Burma. In 1990, during the democratic elections, won by Aung Sun Suu Kyi but annulled by the ruling junta, he was convicted for four years for making political speeches.

In 2006 he was banned indefinitely from performing in public or taking part in any kind of entertainment. Then, in May 2008 Cyclone Nagris devastated the Irrawaddy Delta. A million people were made homeless, up to 200,000 were missing or dead, and one of Burma’s most populace and important agricultural regions was shattered. Despite the scale of the disaster, judged the worst in the nation’s history, the SLORC (State Law & Order Restoration Council) government blocked World Health Organisation and United Nations relief efforts.

Inside Burma Zarganar organised 400 members of the entertainment industry to provide disaster relief to the cyclone-hit region. His teams of volunteers brought aid to 42 villages, some of which received no other aid. Following the disaster he was approached by foreign journalists to talk about the Irrawaddy. On June 4 2008 he was arrested for what he said to the journalists. For speaking against the government’s actions Zarganar was convicted of “public order offences”. Such convictions normally have a maximum prison term of 2 years. In November 2008, Zarganar was sentenced to 59 years in jail. An appeal succeeded in reducing the sentence, but the comedian is facing 35 years in jail.

His humour was directly critical of the government, eg an American, an Englishman and a Burmese meet in a pub and boast “An American climbed Everest with no legs”. “That’s nothing. An English woman swam across the Pacific without arms, twice”. Then, the Burmese said “Your efforts are nothing. Our country has been governed without a brain for 18 years.” It’s only a joke. A lucky Burmese chap managed to get a passport and travelled to India. He visited a dentist for treatment. “Why not wait until you are home again and visit your dentist there?” he was asked. “Don’t you have dentists in Burma?” “Oh, yes” said the patient, “but we’re not allowed to open our mouths.”

The International Committee for Artists’ Freedom has taken up his cause and is working to raise the profile of his situation across the world. Zarganar won the Freedom to Create prize for Imprisoned Artists and the financial assistance that came with the award has supported his family and provided him with food and medication in prison, but his health is suffering. In April 2009 his family got word out that he is seriously ill. He is in Myitkyina prison in the northern Kachin state, 1400km from his family, deliberately and maliciously isolated. ICAF is campaigning for his relief, arguing that his imprisonment is in contravention of the UN Declaration of Human Rights, and they want your help.

Express your concern/disgust/support to Louise McMullan at Equity, tel: 0207 670 0226 or email lmcmullan@equity.org.uk

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